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AFC South suddenly riding high with fruitful free agency period

You know the division.

It's the hottest division in free agency.

It's the one where a likely Hall of Famer changed sides. It's the one where a team on the cusp brought in a new quarterback. It's the one where a squad on the bottom went on a free agency spending spree. And of course, it's the one where a bona fide title contender resides.

AFC East?


Ladies and gentleman, introducing the new and improved AFC South.

Underwhelming over the last couple seasons, this division is emerging from the muck before our eyes. It's time to recognize the rise!

The AFC East has understandably dominated headlines this offseason, but the arrow is pointing up for every single team in the AFC South.

Think about it ...

Indy's a real Super Bowl contender

Andrew Luck has logged three NFL seasons, and every year, the Indianapolis Colts have progressed on the postseason front -- from Wild-Card Weekend in the 2012 playoffs to the 2013 Divisional Round to the AFC Championship Game this past January, when they fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Luck is a true star, ready to take the next step to Super Bowl Sunday. But he needs a better supporting cast.

That's why I love what Colts general manager Ryan Grigson has done, bringing in seasoned veterans to help the cause. As I wrote last week, Indy's rounding into a top-notch contender.

Frank Gore will get the ball 12 to 15 times per game, run north-south with ferocity and provide the offense with some needed balance. Gore's Pro Bowl days might be behind him, but he's still a fine player and fantastic leader, a guy who can help this team on and off the field. And he replaces Trent Richardson, who had trouble standing up -- which is kind of a problem for a running back.

Like Gore, receiver Andre Johnson isn't the player he once was, but he's a pro's pro -- and the ideal replacement for Reggie Wayne, who is done in Indy after a spectacular career there.

Trent Cole still has gas left in the tank to rush the passer, and fellow former Eagle Todd Herremans upgrades the Colts' offensive line.

This isn't Indy getting old. It's Indy getting smart and complementing its young, talented core with veterans who can take this team to the next level.

Houston's ready for takeoff

The Houston Texans were dangerously close to the playoffs last season. In head man Bill O'Brien's first year, this group morphed from a two-win failure to a solid, nine-win riser. I thought so highly of the job O'Brien did that I gave him my vote for Coach of the Year.

And Houston managed this seven-win improvement despite dealing with one of the worst quarterback situations in the league.

The Texans smartly picked up Brian Hoyer in free agency. Hoyer isn't transcendent, but he won games in Cleveland, which is no easy feat. He's a leader and knows O'Brien's system from their days together in New England. Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, who spent last year in Houston after also being a backup to Tom Brady in New England, will battle for the No. 1 job. Given their familiarity with O'Brien's offense, either guy will be an instant upgrade over last year's primary starter, Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Andre Johnson was Mr. Houston, a true star and the epitome of class. But both parties needed a change. I like GM Rick Smith snatching up Cecil Shorts to step in at receiver.

And I thought Smith and O'Brien did a nice job re-upping their own. In addition to keeping Mallett, the Texans also held on to offensive tackle Derek Newton and cornerback Kareem Jackson. Solid stuff.

O'Brien and J.J. Watt make everyone better, just as Chuck Pagano and Luck do in Indy. Houston's offseason has been savvy and calculated, and I expect more positive moves going forward and in the draft. Currently, I think the Texans are in better shape than the Bills, Jets and Dolphins from the much-publicized AFC East.

In my eyes, the Texans are on track for the playoffs.

In Gus we trust

Last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars fell victim to unfair expectations of a major jump. While I did think they'd win more than three games, I recall hearing preseason playoff chatter in some circles. That was simply batty.

The Jaguars aren't a playoff team this year, either. But I don't think coach Gus Bradley and GM David Caldwell should be on the hot seat. 2016 -- Year 3 for Blake Bortles and Year 4 of the Bradley/Caldwell plan -- is the big campaign. I still like this duo. I still believe in it. Remember, these guys inherited a mess. Slowly but surely, they are upgrading this roster.

As Bradley told me on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," the signing of tight end Julius Thomas greatly aids Bortles' development. This is paramount, as the quarterback had a less-than-flattering rookie season, with way more picks (17) than touchdown passes (11).

And while DeMarco Murray didn't take cash from the Jags, defensive tackle Jared Odrick did -- and he's an upgrade who will fit well in Bradley's D.

Remember the Titans

The most nondescript team in the NFL is doing things. Good things! I showed the Tennessee Titans some love in my "Schein Nine" earlier this week. I really like them bringing in linebacker Brian Orakpo and bringing back linebacker Derrick Morgan. I also think the signings of tight end Anthony Fasano and receive Harry Douglas represent steps in the right direction.

The Titans have a great opportunity to make a huge mark in the 2015 NFL Draft with the No. 2 overall pick. Marcus Mariota? Leonard Williams? Trade the pick for a bounty of selections?

It's OK that you can't name five guys who played for the Titans last season. Nobody can. And I'm not ready to declare that Tennessee will win five games.

But this offseason's shaping up to be a mark in the plus column.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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